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You’ll sing, we’ll drink: Spirit of The West ready to jig

By Rachel Ross

Spirit Of The West will be playing Ryerson’s 38th Annual Parade and Picnic this Friday but they won’t be bringing the backup band from their last album. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) was busy.

The band’s relationship with the VSO began with a two-night performance at the Orpheum Theatre in 1995. “The VSO wanted to do a show with a Canadian pop band as a feature of their season.” says Spirit Of The West’s drummer Vince Ditrich. “We saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

But it was also a scary opportunity. The event grew from a concert into a live recording and a special program for the BRAVO television network. The band tried to do their homework, listening to the greatest-hits symphony albums by artists like The Rolling Stones, Tom Cochrane and Jethro Tull. That helped the band decide what they didn’t want to do: sounds like Muzak and play a lot of old material.

Band mates Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann came up with 25 new songs, 11 of which they recorded on the album Two Headed. Others were saved for the symphony performance and recording, Open Heart Symphony. Unlike their previous releases, the lyrics on these last two albums lost some of their political slant and became more introspective. “Milk, Tea & Oranges” is about a shopping list they found in Toronto on the way to the Senator for breakfast.

Spirit Of The West has changed a lot since its inception in 1983. It began as a three-man group, wo could each play the guitar, sing and write some great Celtic tunes. Kelly, Mann and J. Knutson (who would leave the band five years later) shared these roles for three years until they combined their talents with multi-intstrumentalist Hugh McMillan. In 1989, Linda McRae took over on bass and accordion while McMillan went on sabbatical.

Spirit Of The West’s first major label recording on Warner Music, Save This House, was released the following year. McMillan returned from sabbatical for Spirit Of The West’s UK tour but the band still felt overwhelmed opening for the Wonderstuff. That was when they brought the Ditrich on drums to intensify their sound. This increased intensity was matched by a stylistic change, as Celtic roots were exchanged for electric guitars. It was a change that aggravated many of their fans.

“We don’t like to repeat ourselves, so we keep on experimenting and sometimes it clicks,” says Ditrich. “I can see a time when we come back and do a pure Celtic album. And there’s always still a little (Celtic) flavour in our songs anyway.”

If Spirit Of The West’s performance this Friday is anything like their other outdoor performances, it will combine this Celtic flavor with the musical intensity needed for a large audience.

“Playing a large venue is a mixed blessing,” said Ditrich. “It looks prestigious to the audience and the general public if you can fill the place, but it’s not quite as intimate. You can’t see into the people’s eyes. Sometimes I miss being able to wink at someone in the audience.”

Spirit of the West plays the picnic this Friday.

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